1. Ohio State
Putting my bias aside, there’s a ton to like about Ohio State this year. The Buckeyes’ defensive front seven is the best in the country, and their secondary is ridiculously talented too. Offensively, they’ll have new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson in charge, which should help put new life in what was an anemic offense last season. Still, they’ll need to find playmakers on the outside now that Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown are gone.
2. Penn State
Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are back to lead what should be the best offense in the Big Ten, if not the country. The major question marks for the Nittany Lions are on the defensive side of the ball. If Penn State can stay healthy at linebacker, and find a defensive end that can consistently get pressure on the quarterback, then big things are in store in 2017.
The Wolverines will have to replace a ton of starters from their 2016 squad, but with the way Harbaugh has recruited, this is still a Top 20 team. They’ll have a strong defense, led by a defensive line anchored by Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary.
I am expecting your normal Wisconsin team — strong rushing attack and good defense. The Badgers will be without All-Big Ten running back Corey Clement, but rising sophomore Bradrick Shaw has the makings of the next great back in Madison. Would be pretty surprised if the Badgers weren’t back in Indianapolis on December 2.
As is usually the case with the top heavy Big Ten, these teams in the middle can easily be interchanged around. Personally, I like the Wildcats. If not for McSorley and Barkley, Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson might be the best QB-RB duo in the Big Ten. Northwestern’s schedule also sets up pretty nicely, getting Penn State at home while missing Ohio State and Michigan.
I think I like the Hawkeyes more than most. Their offensive line should be very strong, Akrum Wadley is a fantastic running back, and their defensive front seven should be good too. The problem is, Iowa’s schedule is rough — they do get Ohio State and Penn State at home, but they’ll travel to Michigan State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
With PJ Fleck now at the helm, Minnesota is going to eventually challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West crown...just not this year. The Golden Gophers’ schedule doesn’t seem too daunting, but they have quite a bit to replace, only bringing back 11 starters.
Unless Richard Lagow just stops throwing a million interceptions, Indiana’s offense is going to struggle to put up points. Fortunately for those in Bloomington, the defense should be nasty. Linebacker Tegray Scales and cornerback Rashard Fant head up one of the better units in the Big Ten.
Perhaps I’m missing something with Tanner Lee, but I’m not quite sure I get the hype. Sure, he apparently looked good at the Manning Camp, but his numbers at Tulane leave a lot to be desired. We’ll see if the buzz is real, because if it’s not, the Cornhuskers might not even make a bowl game.
10. Michigan State
After bottoming out last season en route to a 3-9 record, the Spartans are returning less than 10 starters — not good. Mark Dantonio is a really good coach, but it’s difficult to see a scenario where Michigan State is a true contender in the Big Ten East.
I’m a fan of what DJ Durkin is building at Maryland, but the quarterback situation in College Park isn’t good. Unless Tyrrell Pigrome really made strides as a passer since last season, Maryland’s offense is going to be run-heavy and one-dimensional.
This Lovie Smith thing doesn’t seem like it’s going to work out.
I predict that Rutgers will score at least one touchdown against one of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State in 2017. Big improvements in Piscataway.